Luigi Costantini  /  AP
Riot police in Venice respond to demonstrators who held a protest as the 2006 Winter Olympics torch passed through the Italian city on Jan. 17. The protests were upset about a plan to save the sinking city from high waters.
By Kari Huus Reporter
updated 2/13/2006 4:25:16 PM ET 2006-02-13T21:25:16

It’s not supposed to be political or controversial, but that didn't stop the protesters who dogged the Turin Olympic torch relay along its course through Italy in the lead-up to the Games.

The two-month-long relay was targeted by at least 30 protests, according to the Italian press. In northern Italy, torch escorts had to wrestle the flame back from anti-globalization activists who snatched it from an Italian track star as she ran through Trento. In Genoa, a demonstration against a planned high-speed railway temporarily halted the torch's journey.

Next up to host the Olympics are the Chinese, who want to put Tibet and long-time rival Taiwan on their torch relay route to Beijing — a sure-fire recipe for political fireworks and protest.

Brotherhood, and squabbles
The relay was revived after World War II, invoking a Greek tradition that held the torch as a symbol of brotherhood, and a signal to combatants worldwide to cease hostilities for the duration of the Games.

With the addition of corporate sponsors in 1983, the relay evolved into a multimillion-dollar promotional event for the Games, making it ever more tempting as a target of protest, and a vehicle for political spin.

The torch run became a regular magnet for protesters in 1988, when a native group in Alberta used the Calgary Games relay to get attention for its land dispute with the Canadian government.

Since then, countries, organizers and groups all have been accused of playing politics with the event.

“The relay has become one of the more significant rituals in the Olympics by sheer number of people drawn to it,” says Kevin Wamsley, a history professor at the International Center for Olympic Studies at the University of Western Ontario. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to promote what you wish to promote. It’s also a very attractive target if you want to send a message all over the world.”

The Olympic relay begins with a torch-lighting ceremony in Olympia, Greece, then traverses thousands of miles before culminating with the lighting ceremony at Olympic stadium of the host country. Thousands turn out catch a glimpse of the torch passing through their neighborhoods, and millions see snatches of it on television.

It has come to incorporate all kinds of conveyance — including camels, dogsleds, and snowmobiles. At Australia's Great Barrier Reef, a biologist carried the torch underwater. In Italy, it traveled by gondola and Ferrari, and stopped in Rome to be blessed by the pope.

Political subtext
Even though politicians are generally not allowed to be torchbearers, the choice of runners and the path of a relay frequently telegraph political messages, or stave off protest.

In Canada, the United States and Australia, native people and places have been liberally included in the relay in recent years.

"It's all a part of the political history of the nation at hand," says Wamsley. "In countries that have been colonized, there is more sensitivity to aboriginal tribes, so they try to to be inclusive so they can’t be criticized."

There was exclusion at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, when organizers dropped Cobb County, Ga., from the route because it had passed anti-gay legislation a couple of years earlier. Organizers said the action did not express the brotherly spirit of the Games.

But conservative newspaper columnist William Safire, who accused President Bill Clinton of tapping into Olympic glory at every turn, said the torch dodged the county because it was home to Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich. It arrived in Washington, he wrote, "to be greeted by the Clintons on the White House lawn just in time for the morning TV shows."

The route for the Salt Lake City relay, which began just months after the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, was altered to include stops at the Pentagon and the Statue of Liberty. The relay also added two torchbearers who lost husbands in the attacks. Those choices meshed with Bush's address at the opening ceremony, which critics complained touted American resolve instead of brotherly competition.

Beijing's motives questioned
Meanwhile, as it prepares for the 2008 Games, Beijing is steering directly into a political hornet's nest with its proposal to include Taiwan on the route, which it claims as a part of China. Taiwan has been ruled separately since 1949 when Nationalists who had been defeated by Mao's Communist forces retreated to Taiwan and set up a rival government.

Taipei has already rejected Beijing's proposal to stage some games on the island, which they fear Beijing would use to support its territorial claims.

The relay proposal is still on the table, but will require finessing to work, says Zang Guohua, a U.S.-based Chinese journalist for Taiwan TV. "If the torch comes from Shanghai, Qingdao or any part of the mainland, it would not be acceptable," he said. "But if it comes from Hong Kong or Macau, it might be OK."

Hong Kong and Macau returned to rule by Beijing in the late 1990s, but are semi-independent.

Scaling Everest
What is more certain is Beijing's truly Olympian plan to include the summit of Mount Everest on the torch route. But this also has provoked resistance.

Mount Everest is in Tibet, which Beijing claims has been Chinese territory for centuries. But Tibet advocates say Beijing only controls Tibet because of its bloody invasion in 1959, when the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet's Buddhists, was driven into exile.

"There is a real sense that China will use the Olympics to show its legitimacy of rule of Tibet," says John Ackerly, president of the International Campaign for Tibet. Ackerly says China should be allowed to host the Games only after it agrees to talks with the Dalai Lama and halts human rights abuses.

"Involving Tibet by bringing the torch to the top of Everest is just very unseemly," says Ackerly.

Protests over the 2008 torch relay will begin long before the flame is lit: Tibet activists plan to demonstrate and appeal at Olympic events throughout the coming two years.

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